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How Do “Religion” and “Spirituality” Differ? Lay Definitions Among Older Adults




Research and public interest in religion and spirituality is on the rise. Consequently, there is an increasing need for rigorously obtained information on what individuals mean when they use these terms. This study examined how 64 older adults living in three retirement communities (including one Christian-based community),

a relatively understudied population, conceptualize religion and spirituality. Participants defined “religion”

and “spirituality,” and their narrative definitions were coded and compared using a framework derived from Hill

et al.’s (2000) conceptualization of religion and spirituality. Despite considerable overlap, participants’ definitions

differed on several dimensions. Participants were more likely to associate religion than spirituality with personal

beliefs, community affiliation, and organized practices. Moreover, spirituality appeared to be a more abstract concept than religion, and included nontheistic notions of a higher power.

Since the 1980s, interest in the scientific study of religion has grown tremendously among researchers from nearly all branches of the social sciences (Emmons and Paloutzian 2003; Moberg 2002; Moore, Kloos, and Rasmussen 2001; Seybold and Hill 2001; Wink and Dillon

2003). American public opinion suggests why this topic has gained prominence as a research endeavor: religion and spirituality are important components in people’s lives (Adler et al. 2005), and may even be essential to human nature (Moberg 2001). According to a recent Newsweek poll,


percent of the general American public describe themselves as religious in some way, and


percent describe themselves as spiritual (Adler et al. 2005). Further, many people—between


percent and 74 percent—likely identify with both of these terms (Adler et al. 2005; Marler

and Hadaway 2002; Zinnbauer et al. 1997). Given this interest, it is important for social science researchers to understand what members of the general public and different segments of the population mean when they speak of “religion” and “spirituality.” How do lay people define religion? How do they define spirituality? And, to what extent do individuals differentiate between these two concepts? The answers to these questions have important implications both for understanding the role of religion and spirituality

in people’s lives, as well as for how social scientists measure and interpret research findings on these constructs.

Research Definitions of Religion and Spirituality

Psychologists and theologians agree that societal and scholarly definitions of “religion” and “spirituality” are changing. At one time seen as equivalent, the concepts are becoming increasingly distinct (Hill et al. 2000; Pargament 1999; Turner et al. 1995). And, these concepts will likely become further delineated as attitudes toward religion and spirituality continue to

Mich ele` M. Schlehofer is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Salisbury University, Salisbury, MD. Allen M. Omoto is Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University. E-mail: Allen.Omoto@cgu.edu Janice R. Adelman is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University. E-mail: Janice.Adelman@cgu.edu Correspondence should be addressed to Michele` M. Schlehofer, Department of Psychology, Salisbury University, 1101 Camden Ave., Salisbury, MD 21801. E-mail: mmschlehofer@salisbury.edu

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2008) 47(3):411–425


2008 The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion



evolve (Cimino and Lattin 1998). Not surprisingly, researchers have suggested that strong and clear operational definitions of these constructs are needed to gain deeper understanding of what it means to be religious or spiritual (Emmons and Paloutzian 2003; Gorsuch 1984; Hill 2005; Hill et al. 2000; Moberg 2002; Tsang and McCullough 2003; Zinnbauer and Pargament 2005; Zinnbauer, Pargament, and Scott 1999). Indeed, social science researchers have offered multiple and expanding definitions for these terms, particularly spirituality, a construct considered difficult to comprehend across popular, scientific, and theological circles (Hyman and Handal 2006; Miller and Thoresen 2003; Moberg 2002). Despite extensive theoretical discourse and empirical research, there is still no overarching or agreed-upon definition or standard operationalization of either term (Moore et al. 2001). Some researchers suggest that religion and spirituality fall on several polarized dimensions (e.g., Moberg 2001), although the number and content of those dimensions is a topic of some debate. For example, Zinnbauer and colleagues (1999) used three major dimensions in their de- scription of these constructs: negative-positive, organized-personal, and substantive-functional. Specifically, religion is often associated with negative qualities (e.g., being dogmatic or encour- aging cult and fundamentalist behavior), whereas spirituality is typically associated with positive or “good” qualities (e.g., expanding self-awareness). Thus, religion represents a set of organized practices established by tradition and conducted in a central place of worship, whereas spiri- tuality is more personal, consisting of a “lived consciousness” of relating to a higher power. Religion holds a substantive focus on its practices, beliefs, and emotions, whereas spiritual- ity is considered more functional, focusing on nature and being, and how beliefs, emotions, and practices relate to diverse life events like death, suffering, and injustice (Zinnbauer et al.


Along these lines, it is unclear if or how references to a “higher power” are relevant to spiri- tuality, and whether “higher power” is conceptualized and means the same thing in descriptions of religion. Some argue that both religion and spirituality entail theistic concepts of the sacred, such as a belief in God, Christ, or the Divine, but that spirituality also encompasses beliefs in New Age concepts such as astrology or the supernatural (Koenig 1997). For instance, Zinnbauer and colleagues (1997) found among a sample of individuals of varying backgrounds and religious convictions that, when describing spirituality, a majority of respondents (70 percent) invoked what they deemed “traditional” concepts of the sacred, such as beliefs in God or Christ. However, a not insubstantial minority (10 percent) made references to “nontraditional” concepts, such as nature, transcendental reality, or ground of being. Hill and colleagues (2000) proposed a different, nonpolarized conceptualization of religion and spirituality. In this conceptualization, both religion and spirituality encompass two main components: (1) a concept of the sacred (i.e., a perception of some source of ultimate reality or divine being/object) and (2) a search for what is sacred (i.e., the articulation—at least to oneself— of understanding and maintaining a relationship with one’s own personal god). Religion, however, encompasses two additional components that spirituality does not: (3) a search for the nonsacred (e.g., feelings of safety, hope, or affiliation arising out of a sense of community within a religious group); and (4) a prescription of legitimate means and methods by which to search for the sacred (e.g., religious rituals such as baptism, religious wedding ceremonies, and organized prayers). This conceptual framework is novel in that it presents a nonpolarized approach to defining and understanding religion and spirituality. However, it remains to be seen whether lay people see religion and spirituality as overlapping in the ways suggested by this framework.

Linking Empirical Work and Lay Definitions

Some empirical work has attempted to fill the gaps between scholarly and lay definitions of religion and spirituality. Contrary to polarized conceptualizations posited by researchers, members of the general public appear to view religion and spirituality as having many similarities.



Spirituality is often described in personal or experiential terms, such as having a relationship with

a higher power (Zinnbauer et al. 1997). It may include reference to an inner guide or “moral

compass,” and can exist within or independent of a religious context (e.g., Marler and Hadaway 2002). In one study, in fact, 63 percent of participants saw religion and spirituality as two distinct, yet closely related, concepts, and one-third reported that they found the terms to be nearly one and the same (Marler and Hadaway 2002). The fact that individuals in some of these studies reported that religion but not spirituality also encompasses organizational or institutional beliefs (e.g., church membership and attendance) provides additional evidence for perceived distinctions between religion and spirituality. That is, in contrast to the descriptions of spirituality, very few people (less than 1 percent) in one study associated religion with nontheistic concepts of the sacred, such as “nature” and “transcendental reality” (see Zinnbauer et al. 1997). Clearly, then, some insight has been gained into what “religion” and “spirituality” mean to lay people. However, questions still remain. The few published studies on this topic have relied on research protocols in which respondents must define themselves as being either religious or spiritual. Therefore, these studies have generally overlooked the responses of roughly 55 percent to 74 percent of the American population who identify with both terms (Adler et al. 2005; Marler and Hadaway 2002; Zinnbauer et al. 1997). Thus, the way in which a substantial proportion of Americans define religion and spirituality remains largely unknown. Understanding people’s lay definitions of these terms has the potential to shed light on how religion and spirituality influence a myriad of personal outcomes, such as mental health, longevity, volunteerism, and political activism. Similarly, this information is needed in order to provide empirical bolstering for theoretical conceptualizations of these terms. The current research sought to explore some of these issues through a qualitative study with

a sample of older adults living in retirement communities. Religion and spirituality are important aspects of life for about 85 percent of older adults (Lewis 2001). Additionally, longitudinal research suggests that whereas religious beliefs and practices follow patterns set in early adulthood and remain relatively stable with age, spirituality increases from late middle age to older adulthood (Moberg 1997; Wink and Dillon 2002, 2003). Thus, using data from a sample of older adults provides an opportunity to understand how individuals who are likely to be both highly religious and highly spiritual define the terms. Furthermore, relatively little research to date has focused specifically on older adults, despite research indicating that being both religious and spiritual is related to better well-being in older adults (e.g., Krause and Wulff 2005). We incorporated Hill et al.’s (2000) conceptual definitions of religion and spirituality as a theoretical guide and an initial starting point for our research. Based on this and other research, we expected that older adults would define religion as a more elaborate and complex construct than spirituality, but that both concepts would be associated with theistic imagery. Specifically, we explored three primary


Hypothesis 1: Participants would equally associate theistic concepts of the sacred with religion and spirituality (1a); however, they would associate nontheistic concepts of the sacred with spirituality more than with religion


Hypothesis 2: Participants would equally associate a search for the sacred with religion and spirituality (2a), but they would more often associate concepts relating to a search for the nonsacred with religion than with spirituality


Hypothesis 3: Participants would equally associate nonorganizationally-based practices (e.g., prayer, meditation) with religion and spirituality (3a). But, participants would associate both organizationally-based practices (e.g., church services; 3b) and codes of conduct (e.g., principles or laws; 3c) more with religion than with spirituality.





Sixty-seven older adults aged 61 to 93 (M = 78.7 years; SD = 6.68) completed interviews as part of a larger study on religion, volunteerism, and community participation. Data were unavailable for three participants due to early termination of interviews (N = 2) or voice recorder malfunction ( N = 1), leaving a final N = 64. Participants from three different retirement communities in Los Angeles County, California took part. One of these communities (30 participants) self-identifies as a “Christian” community, and has a residency requirement of a minimum of 20 years of employment in a Christian-based organization (e.g., as a missionary, pastor, or YMCA director). We specifically sought to include participants from this Christian-based community in order to ensure that the sample would have a range of views on religion and spirituality. The remaining two retirement communities (total of 34 participants) are not affiliated with any particular religion, and income is the only entry requirement. We hereafter refer to these two communities as “nonaffiliated.” The Christian community and one of the nonaffiliated communities are located across the street from each other, and the other nonaffiliated community is in an adjacent town approximately 15 minutes away. All three communities are roughly the same size, and all three provide a continuum of care for residents ranging from independent living in on-site apartments or houses to long-term custodial care in a designated health center. Participants were predominately female (71.6 percent) and white (91 percent). Most partic- ipants (83.6 percent) were Protestant (e.g., Methodist; Presbyterian), 9 percent were Catholic, 4.5 percent listed an “other” religion (e.g., Jewish; transdenominational), and 3 percent reported more than one religious affiliation. 1 Many participants (44.8 percent) were currently married, 26.9 percent had never been married, 22.4 percent were widowed, 4.5 percent were divorced or separated, and 1.5 percent reported an “other” marital status, and as a set, the participants were highly educated: the modal maximum educational attainment was a master’s degree (26.9 percent) and 13.4 percent held a doctoral-level degree. Participants from the Christian-based community ( N = 27; 81.8 percent) were more likely than participants from the other com- munities ( N = 17; 50 percent) to report having a postbaccalaureate education, χ 2 (1) = 7.52, p < 0.01. On average, participants had lived in their retirement community just under eight years ( M = 7.61; SD = 6.53; range 1 week to 30 years). Participants from the Christian-based com- munity reported living longer in their community (M = 10.21 years; SD = 7.45) than those from the nonaffiliated communities ( M = 4.22 years; SD = 0.73; t (61) = 3.33, p < 0.001). 2 Most participants (89.6 percent) currently lived in independent living arrangements, with 10.4 percent living in assisted living arrangements in which staff assisted them with some of their daily care. In line with their longer residency, all participants ( N = 7) living in assisted living arrangements were from the Christian-based retirement community, χ 2 (1) = 6.05, p < 0.01. There were no other demographic differences across the communities.


Organizers of the larger study made presentations about the project at each of the retire- ment communities’ monthly town hall/community-wide meetings. Immediately following the presentation, they circulated a sign-up sheet to recruit interested participants. All individuals who indicated interest in the study were contacted by phone and, provided they were still interested, scheduled for an interview at their convenience. Additionally, a resident of the Christian-based re- tirement community recommended potential respondents to the research team. These individuals were then contacted and invited to take part.



One member of a team of five trained interviewers conducted semi-structured interviews containing closed- and open-ended questions with each participant. All interviews were voice- recorded. Prior to data collection, interviewers conducted practice interviews, and there were ongoing checks on completed interviews and regular interviewer meetings during the data col- lection phase to ensure interview quality and consistency. All interviews were conducted either in participants’ homes or in quiet rooms at the retire- ment communities. Each participant received $30 compensation, and later, a hand-written letter from their interviewer thanking them for their time. Trained members of the research team or professional transcribers later transcribed all of the interviews, and also checked the transcrip- tions against the original voice recording for accuracy. The analyses reported here are based on portions of these transcripts.


During their interview, participants answered a series of closed- and open-ended items about religion and spirituality. First, participants used a four-point Likert scale (1 = not at all to 4 = very much) to separately rate “How religious are you?” and “How spiritual are you?” Later, all participants used their own words to define religion and spirituality and to describe the importance

of each construct in their lives. Specifically, interviewers asked: “What does religion (spirituality)

mean to you?” An in-depth response was sought by asking three additional follow-up questions, as needed: “What individuals or events in your life have influenced the way you think about religion (spirituality)?” “How important is religion (spirituality) to yourself and your sense of who you are?” and “What role does religion (spirituality) play in your life?”

Code Development and Coding

Participants’ responses were coded using both inductive and deductive approaches, and using Hill et al.’s (2000) theoretical definitions and Zinnbauer et al.’s (1997) coding scheme as guides. First, content codes in Zinnbauer and associates’ coding scheme were grouped as referring to

a Concept of the Sacred, Search for the Sacred, Search for the Non-Sacred, or Methods of

Searching for the Sacred based on key phrases from Hill et al.’s theoretical definitions. We created one additional content code, Political Mobilization, because four participants described political mobilization as important in their definition of religion. Political Mobilization, defined as using knowledge of the sacred as a force for political change, was classified as a Search for the Non-Sacred because it encompasses using religion as a transformational agent. See Tables 1 and 2 for a full list of the coding scheme.



Key Features


Explicitly refers to theistic concept of the sacred (e.g., God, Christ, Higher Power, Holy, Holy Ghost, Divine, the Church).

Nontheistic Explicitly refers to nontheistic concept of the sacred (e.g., transcendental reality, ground of being, nature, inner-self, emotions).

No concept; no conceptualization. Refers to something sacred, but doesn’t specify if it is a theistic or nontheistic power. Uses both theistic and nontheistic concepts of the sacred in his or her definition.





Category Code

Subcategory Code

Key Features

Search for the sacred

Personal beliefs

Spiritual or religious beliefs mentioned, such as belief or faith in God/Higher Power/the divine/personal values,

view of God, etc. Questioning beliefs Doubting religious or spiritual beliefs, making choices as to beliefs, mystery and uncertainty surrounding beliefs.

Religious meaning

Having or striving to gain meaning or maintaining


meaning of God/Higher Power, etc. Adapting meaning of God/Higher Power, etc. in


response to self-discovery. Feeling or experience of connectedness/relationship/


oneness with God/Christ/Higher Power; experiencing sacred. Integrating one’s own values or beliefs about the sacred


with behavior in daily life; following the divine’s will in one’s life; commitment to following God’s plan; path to God; God working to guide or control your life, etc. A form of integration manifesting itself in concern for

Life meaning

others; aimed at obtaining a better world; altruistic motives embedded in a sacred context; care for others; putting religious beliefs into practice by helping others; demonstrating God’s love to others. Religion as a source of meaning in one’s life, defining

Search for the non-sacred Good feelings

who you are. Aimed at attaining a desirable inner affective state such


as comfort, anxiety reduction, security, safety, etc. either now or after death; using knowledge of the sacred to provide solace and comfort. Having, or striving to gain, control over problems or

Negative means

ability to solve problems in one’s life. Using knowledge of sacred for negative means or ends


such as: feeling superior to others; religious-based conflict; an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. Aimed at obtaining personal growth; improving yourself


from having contact with the sacred. Hope and positive self-outlook; self-esteem; enjoyment


in life. Finding affiliation; social support; friendship; sense of

community; social identification; etc. with other followers of one’s faith. Political mobilization Using knowledge of the sacred as a force of political mobilization (e.g., church communities organizing together in protest).






Category Code

Subcategory Code

Key Features

Method of searching for the sacred

Nonorganizationally based

Personal, either private or public (unorganized) worship or practices such as prayer, Bible reading, meditation, watching religious TV programming, listening to religious music on the radio, etc. Organizational practices, rituals, or activities such as attendance at services, performance of rituals (including marriages, baptisms, etc.). Commitment to organizational beliefs or adherence to institutionally-based belief systems or dogma; organizational form of faith; following a code of conduct, rules, or teachings.

Organizationally based

Codes of conduct

Note: The presence of each of the above subcategories were separately noted and coded. Within categories, these dichotomously coded subcategories were then summed.

Transcripts were coded three ways. First, based on if and how participants referred to a higher power in their responses, their definitions were separately coded into one of three subcategories reflecting their Concept of the Sacred: Theistic (e.g., mentions “God,” “Lord,” or “Christ”), Non- Theistic (e.g., mentions “nature,” “transcendental reality”), or Other (no mention of the sacred or mixed definitions, such as mentioning both “God” and “nature;” see Zinnbauer et al. 1997). That is, participants’ descriptions of religion and spirituality each received one code, characterizing that participant’s Concept of the Sacred. Second, references to a Search for the Sacred and a Search for the Non-Sacred were separately noted and coded. As shown in Table 2, several subcategories were used within each category, with each subcategory theme dichotomously coded as “present” or “not present” in the transcript. We created a total category score by summing across subcategory codes. For example, if a narrative definition mentioned Affiliation twice and Good Feelings once (both subcategories of Search for the Non-Sacred), that person received a score of one for Affiliation, a score of one for Good Feelings, and an overall score of two for the Search for the Non-Sacred category. Because some participants gave longer answers to the open-ended questions than others, this coding method of only scoring the presence or absence of each subcategory helped control for transcript length and repetition. Finally, each of the different Methods of Searching for the Sacred (Organizationally-Based Practices, Nonorganizationally-Based Practices, or Codes of Conduct) was dichotomously coded as “present” or “not present.” For instance, if a participant mentioned two organizationally- based practices, no nonorganizationally-based practice, and referred to a code of conduct, that individual received a score of one for Organizationally-Based Practices, a score of zero for Nonorganizationally-Based Practices, and a score of one for Code of Conduct. Organizationally- Based Practices, Nonorganizationally-Based Practices, and Codes of Conduct are conceptually distinct (Hill et al. 2000); therefore, we did not create an overall score for this dimension. To assess the clarity and reliability of the coding scheme, two coders separately coded the same randomly chosen 13 transcripts (20 percent of the total transcripts) at the sentence or phrase



level. A sentence or phrase was identified by breaks in speech as indicated on the transcript (e.g., pauses, the presence of fillers in speech, or changes in topic). The raters had an overall agreement of 91 percent across all coding categories; therefore, one coder coded all remaining transcripts.


Responses to the Likert scale questions in which participants rated how religious and how spiritual they were revealed high self-ratings for both religious ( M = 3.53 out of a range of 1–4; SD = 0.64; Mdn = 4) and spiritual ( M = 3.23; SD = 0.86; Mdn = 3). Although participants were significantly more religious than spiritual, t (61) = 3.49, p < 0.001, both mean ratings were relatively high. In addition, no participant rated their religiousness or spirituality as “1 (not at all).” There were no differences in the ratings of religiousness and spirituality between participants from the Christian-based community and participants from the nonaffiliated communities. Thus, we conclude that the participants in this sample identify themselves as being both religious and spiritual.

Tests of Hypotheses

To test our hypotheses, we conducted a series of dependent sample t -tests comparing the number of times a code was applied across terms (religion and spirituality) using data from the entire sample. However, it is plausible that participants from the Christian-based retirement community, who all have extensive records of service in the Christian church, might conceptualize religion and spirituality differently than participants recruited from the unaffiliated communities. Thus, we also compared the pattern of findings between these two types of communities. No significant differences in the pattern of results were found unless otherwise noted. Hypothesis 1, on Concept of the Sacred, tested whether participants were equally likely to associate Theistic Concepts with religion as with spirituality (1a), and whether they were more likely to associate Nontheistic Concepts with spirituality than with religion (1b). Participants associated Theistic Concepts more with religion ( M = 0.81; SD = 0.39) than with spirituality ( M = 0.42; SD = 0.50), t (63) = 5.14, p < 0.001. As shown in Table 3, most participants (81.2 percent; N = 52) used such theistic concepts as “belief in God” or “Christ” when discussing religion, but only 42.2 percent ( N = 27) used such terms when discussing spirituality. For Hypothesis 1b, we found that participants equally used Nontheistic Concepts when describing religion ( M = 0.09; SD = 0.29) and spirituality ( M = 0.14; SD = 0.33), t (63) = 0.63, n.s. In fact, though, only a minority of our older adult sample mentioned such concepts: 9 percent of participants ( N = 6) mentioned nontheistic concepts, such as “divine being” or “nature,” when defining religion; 14 percent (N = 9) used such terms when defining spirituality (see Table 3). For example, one participant, when defining spirituality, mentioned a spiritual group she belonged to in which members “tried to get in touch with [their] inner selves by various physical exercises.” This reference to her “inner self” indicates a nontheistic concept of the sacred.



Religion M ( SD)

Spirituality M ( SD)

t for Difference


0.812 (0.39)

0.422 (0.50)



0.090 (0.29)

0.140 (0.33)



0.094 (0.29)

0.438 (0.50)






Religion M ( SD)

Spirituality M ( SD)

t for Differences

Total: search for the sacred Personal beliefs a Questioning beliefs a Religious meaning a Self-discovery a Oneness a Integration a Concern a Life meaning a Total: Search for the non-sacred Good feelings b Control b Negative means b Growth b Self-esteem b Affiliation b Political mobilization b

2.17 (1.16) 0.69 (0.47) 0.19 (0.39) No codes applied 0.06 (0.24) 0.17 (0.38) 0.47 (0.50) 0.16 (0.37) 0.44 (0.50) 0.88 (0.90) 0.20 (0.41) 0.11 (0.32) 0.08 (0.27) 0.08 (0.27) 0.06 (0.24) 0.28 (0.45) 0.06 (0.24)

1.42 (1.21) 0.36 (0.48) 0.05 (0.21) 0.05 (0.21) 0.08 (0.27) 0.27 (0.45) 0.27 (0.45) 0.13 (0.33) 0.23 (0.43) 0.50 (0.73) 0.16 (0.37) 0.05 (0.21) 0.02 (0.13) 0.13 (0.33) 0.08 (0.27) 0.08 (0.27) No codes applied



















p < 0.05; p < 0.01; p < 0.001. a With a Bonferroni correction, statistically significant at p < 0.006. b With a Bonferroni correction, statistically significant at p < 0.007. Note: Statistically significant codes are italicized.

The proportion of participants with an Other Concept of the Sacred differed between de- scriptions of religion ( M = 0.09; SD = 0.29) and spirituality ( M = 0.44; SD = 0.50), t (63) = 5.08, p < 0.001 (see Table 3). Specifically, only six (9.4 percent) participants used Other concepts when defining religion, but 28 (43.8 percent) used Other concepts when discussing spirituality. To further explore this difference, we divided the Other responses into Mixed Concept of the Sacred (i.e., both theistic and nontheistic concepts) or Unknown (e.g., “a hard one to define,” or “I don’t know”). Almost half of participants holding an Other concept, or 18.8 percent of the total sample, fell into the latter category, expressing ambiguity when describing spirituality. For instance, one

I’d have to go look it up and think about it.” The remaining

participant replied, “I don’t know

participants defined religion and spirituality as one and the same. For instance, one person, when asked to define spirituality, stated, “I don’t separate the two (religion and spirituality).” Hypothesis 2a posited that participants would equally associate a Search for the Sacred with religion and spirituality. We explored this two ways. First, we used dependent samples t -tests to compare the total number of subcategories referencing this search in participants’ definitions of religion and spirituality. We found that participants’ descriptions referenced a Search for the Sacred more frequently when discussing religion (M = 2.17; SD = 1.16) than spirituality ( M =

1.42; SD = 1.21), t (63) = 5.08, p < 0.001, as shown in Table 4. Additional analyses further explored this finding. Specifically, we used a series of dependent samples t -tests to test for differences in individual subcategories that may have been obscured in the aggregated Search for the Sacred measure. Because we were conducting multiple tests, we implemented a Bonferroni procedure to control for inflated alpha. With this procedure, the overall desired alpha (0.05) is divided by the number of tests (8), and the resultant number is taken as the critical p-value level (0.006).



For hypothesis tests using the subcategory codes, the means reported (see Table 4) reflect the proportion of participants who used each subcategory code in defining religion and spiritu-

ality. Two subcategories reached significance: Personal Beliefs, t (63) = 4.24, p < 0.001, and Life Meaning, t (63) = 3.01, p < 0.005; the domain of integration approached significance, t (63) = 2.73, p < 0.008. Compared to definitions of spirituality, definitions of religion more often included references to each of these subcategories. A common response illustrating the personal

feel like it’s religion that makes you live the way you do.”

When discussing religion, many participants stressed that it provides a “framework” or “guide” by which to live one’s life. For example, one participant shared, “it tells me who I am and why I’m here and where I’m going.” Another noted that religion is “the absolute basis of being.” This pattern of findings indicates that, to most individuals in our sample, religion was more than having a belief in God; it also included a framework by which to live one’s life and derive meaning. Hypothesis 2b suggested that the proportion of codes categorized as Search for the Non- Sacred would be greater for definitions of religion than spirituality. As expected, participants’ descriptions of religion ( M = 0.88; SD = 0.90) referenced a Search for the Non-Sacred signifi-

cantly more than their descriptions of spirituality ( M = 0.50; SD = 0.73), t (63) = 2.55, p < 0.05 (see Table 4). Again, each subcategory within this category was tested using a Bonferroni proce- dure. With a desired alpha of 0.05, only ps < 0.007 (0.05/7 tests) were considered statistically significant. The only comparison to reach significance was for the subcategory of Affiliation, which was associated more frequently with religion ( M = 0.28; SD = 0.45) than with spirituality ( M = 0.08; SD = 0.27), t (63) = 3.01, p < 0.004. Indeed, it appears that people associated religion with a community and a place in which to socialize and connect with friends. For example, in describing religion, one participant said, “I believe that the most fundamental community that I am a part of is the church.” Others indicated

that religion encompasses “a relationship to the other people in the church

“[going to church is] my identity,” and “fellowship.” This affiliation with a religious group seemed to be an important part of definitions of religion. As these statements highlight, religion served as a source of fellowship, community, and belonging. Overall, 18 people mentioned themes of affiliation when describing religion, but only five mentioned similar themes when defining spirituality. The findings for Search for the Non-Sacred differed across the two types of retirement communities. Specifically, the findings for Hypothesis 2b held for participants from the Christian- based retirement community. These participants associated a Search for the Non-Sacred more frequently with religion (M = 0.87; SD = 0.82) than spirituality ( M = 0.40; SD = 0.62), t (29) = 2.25, p < 0.01. However, this relationship was not found among participants from the nonaffiliated communities; t (33) = 1.26, n.s. Here, references to a Search for the Non-Sacred were statistically equivalent across definitions of religion ( M = 0.88; SD = 0.98) and spirituality ( M = 0.59; SD = 0.82). We conducted analyses of each subcategory in an attempt to determine the source of this difference between communities. No subcategory was associated more strongly with religion than with spirituality in either type of community, although it seems likely that the failure to find statistically significant differences is due to lack of statistical power because of the relatively small sample size and the fact that the mean differences for participants from the nonaffiliated communities are in the predicted direction. Hypothesis 3, on Methods of Searching for the Sacred, was also tested with a series of dependent samples t -tests. Specifically, we assessed whether participants equally associ- ated Nonorganizationally-Based Practices with religion and spirituality (3a), but associated Organizationally-Based Practices (3b) and Codes of Conduct (3c) more with religion than with spirituality. The mean number of times participants mentioned each Method of Searching for the Sacred (i.e., Organizationally-Based Practices, Nonorganizationally-Based Practices, and Codes of Conduct) when discussing religion and spirituality were separately compared (see Table 5).

a supportive group,”

beliefs subcategory was, “you




Religion M ( SD)

Spirituality M ( SD)

t for Differences

Nonorganizationally-based practices

0.34 (0.48)

0.50 (0.50)

Organizationally-based practices

0.77 (0.43)

0.44 (0.50)

Code of conduct

0.38 (0.49)

0.14 (0.35)


1. 80

4. 24



+ p < 0.10; p < 0.001.

Table 5 shows that Nonorganizationally-Based Practices were mentioned with only slightly greater frequency for spirituality ( M = 0.50; SD = 0.50) than for religion ( M = 0.34; SD = 0.48); the difference was marginally significant, t (63) = 1.80, p < 0.08. When describing reli- gion, participants mentioned behaviors such as meditation, reading the Bible and other forms of religious literature, and praying—all nonorganizational activities. Overall, 22 participants men- tioned these types of activities in their descriptions of religion. These same nonorganizational forms of searching for the sacred were also part of many participants’ ( N = 32) conceptualizations of spirituality. As illustrated in one person’s response: “If I would go a day without praying, I would probably feel less energized—less something. I would feel I need to do this.” As expected, participants mentioned Organizationally-Based Practices quite often and more frequently, on average, when discussing religion ( M = 0.77; SD = 0.64) than spirituality ( M = 0.44; SD = 0.50), t (63) = 4.24, p < 0.001. When defining religion, many participants referred to it as an “institutional construct” and mentioned the importance of engaging in organized religious activities (e.g., church services or study groups). These forms of organized methods of searching almost seemed to be a ritual or a habit with some participants. For instance, one participant stated, “if I don’t go to church I almost don’t know what day it is.” Another said: “As I was growing up people talked about dragging their kids to church, but with me and in our own

family church was what you did on Sunday

there was no alternative unless somebody was

sick, and I never thought about it being an imposition.” Other references to organizational-based methods included participating in Sunday School or the choir. Many participants also stressed the importance of participating in organizationally-based practices as a family tradition. As one participant remarked, “I haven’t really been too active in a church, but we made sure that the children grew up in a church, as I did when I was a child.”

Like organized religious practices, and consistent with Hypothesis 3c, participants referenced Codes of Conduct proportionately more frequently when discussing religion ( M = 0.38; SD = 0.49) than spirituality ( M = 0.14; SD = 0.35), t (63) = 3.37, p < 0.001. In fact, 24 participants mentioned such codes when describing religion, but only nine mentioned codes when describing spirituality; many participants actually used the term “code” or “code of conduct” when defining

religion. For instance, one individual said, “it’s the code

you are good people (sic).” Another described religion as being the “rules,” and another described religion as a “contract [of behaviors] with the group [of other religious people].” Another person, who defined himself as moderately religious but held negative attitudes about religion, saw religion as “the attempt of other people to impose upon you their way of thinking.” Similarly, a Roman Catholic respondent specifically mentioned, “the Pope, and all those official things that those officials say” when discussing religion, suggesting that official rules are part of this concept. As with our previous analyses, we explored Hypotheses 3a–3c within the two types of retirement communities. The findings held, with one exception: participants from the nonaf- filiated retirement communities equally associated Codes of Conduct with religion ( M = 0.35;

if you practice it, the primary concepts,



SD = 0.49) and spirituality ( M = 0.21; SD = 0.41), t (33) = 1.41, n.s. Although the means were in the expected direction, the difference was not statistically significant, suggesting that the failure to replicate the findings among these participants, but not among the total sample, may be due to a lack of statistical power.


The current study built on prior theoretical (Hill et al. 2000) and empirical work (Zinnbauer et al. 1997) in addressing the question: “How do religion and spirituality differ?” We sought to provide an illustrative, multifaceted look at how older adults who are both religious and spiritual define these two terms. Because both religion and spirituality are highly important to many older adults, examining their conceptions of these constructs is an appropriate starting point for understanding what people mean when they use these terms. We found several noteworthy patterns. First, participants held less concrete definitions of spirituality than religion, despite the fact that participants defined themselves as highly religious and spiritual. In fact, some participants were not able to define spirituality at all. Additionally, participants mentioned both theistic and nontheistic concepts of the sacred when defining spirituality, but primarily theistic references to a higher power when defining religion. This latter finding is inconsistent with prior work on nonelderly populations (see Zinnbauer et al. 1997). This contradiction may be due to generational differences, or to the fact that participants in this study were both religious and spiritual, and thus may hold a broader view of spirituality. Individuals who identify as only spiritual may have a more thorough and less abstract concept of spirituality than those who identify as both religious and spiritual, providing a different understanding of the sacred than the participants in this study. 3 It is also possible that these findings are simply due to the research protocol itself. The inter- views were conducted following a standard outline and order of questions in which participants were consistently asked to define religion immediately before defining spirituality. It is feasible that some participants were primed with their own thoughts and definitions on religion when it came to defining spirituality. Had the order of questioning been reversed, different conceptual- izations of spirituality may have been obtained. Nonetheless, and in line with other research, the results as a whole suggest that this population has a less clear view of spirituality than religion (see Miller and Thoresen 2003; Moberg 2002). Second, in contrast to the proposition that a Search for the Sacred is a component of both religion and spirituality (Hill et al. 2000), participants in this study were more likely to use this domain when defining religion than when defining spirituality. Specifically, religion was more strongly related to subcategories reflecting personal belief systems and life meaning. Participants defined religion, in contrast to spirituality, as comprising a strongly felt and followed belief system for relating to a higher power; a finding consistent with research on younger adults who identify as both religious and spiritual (Zinnbauer et al. 1997). However, in line with Hill et al.’s theorizing, Search for the Non-Sacred was more strongly associated with religion than spirituality. Within this category, participants saw religion as being associated with a sense of community, as fostering connections with others, and as a source of personal identity. It is possible that these findings are by-products of the method of search and the meaning that religion provides the participants in this study. In conducting a Search for the Sacred, that is, seeking to articulate what God means, people may seek guidance from religious agencies and affiliates, such as churches or synagogues, or faith leaders, such as ministers or rabbis. Moreover, these same tactics may be used when individuals “search for the non-sacred” as well. Similarly, feelings of affiliation or personal comfort, both components of a Search for the Non-Sacred, are likely attained through interaction with the same religious agencies and personnel. Indeed, we found that religion was more strongly associated with feelings of community affiliation than



spirituality. Thus, to the extent that the search for the sacred and the search for the non-sacred are performed in the same way, individuals may strongly associate religion with both of these searches. Finally, when looking at Methods of Searching for the Sacred, we found that, while nonorganizationally-based practices were not differently associated with religion and spirituality, organizationally-based practices and codes of conduct were more often associated with religion than with spirituality. These findings support the theorizing of Hill and colleagues (2000), and are also consistent with prior research (e.g., Zinnbauer et al. 1997). To summarize, definitions of religion and spirituality clearly shared more commonalities than differences among our sample of older adults. However, in contrast to most recent scholarly theorizing (see Zinnbauer et al. 1999), our findings suggest that older adults may not view these constructs as strictly polarized concepts. Further, the fact that our findings were largely consis- tent across the nonaffiliated and Christian-based retirement communities, despite the fact that respondents from the latter communities had substantial service in Christian-based organizations, suggests that our findings may not be due to differential life experiences. In interpreting these findings, several facets of our sample warrant comment. First, our sample was composed entirely of older adults. We cannot assume that our findings generalize to other samples of younger adults or nonretirees. Our sample was also primarily Protestant, and identified as both highly religious and highly spiritual. Thus, all participants were likely aware of Protestant teachings. In addition, our sample of older adults might not be representative of older adults in general for various reasons, such as their residence in retirement communities, rather than independent living. Similarly, their residence in Southern California is noteworthy given the area’s reputation for progressive political and religious views. Additional research on adults of all ages and religious preferences, including the inclusion of those who are secular or who practice non-Christian religions, is warranted in order to determine more completely how the general public defines religion and spirituality and to assess the extent to which lay definitions map onto theoretically derived ones.


Our findings have important implications for both future work on religion and spirituality and for work with older adult populations. Any study of religion and spirituality is inherently complex due to the lack of definitional consensus among researchers and laypersons. As Miller and Thoresen (2003:27) note, “any scientific operational definition of spirituality is likely to differ from what a believer means when speaking of the spiritual.” Our results suggest several impli- cations for measuring religion and spirituality. First, the definitions of religion and spirituality were distinct, yet overlapping; thus, the findings suggest that multidimensional measurement of these constructs is warranted. Although one-dimensional measures of spirituality and religion might be simpler to use, such measures do not appear to tap effectively how people define these constructs in the real world. In fact, scales that purport to assess spirituality are unlikely to tap fully the totality of people’s spiritual experiences (e.g., Moberg 2001). Our findings support this idea, as well as the need for future psychometric and measurement work on these concepts. Second, the findings demonstrate that no existing theoretical framework can fully explain older adults’ definitions of religion and spirituality, highlighting the need for further construct refinement when working with this population. There is ongoing debate among researchers on how these terms should be defined and measured (Gorsuch 1984; Tsang and McCullough 2003). Our findings inform this debate by suggesting that it might be fruitful to ground scientific definitions and measurement of these constructs at least partially in the lay definitions from the population of interest. The fact that older adults in our sample have a more abstract understanding of spirituality than of religion has additional implications for operationalizing and measuring these constructs.



If participants have an abstract understanding of spirituality, they may not be able to articulate this concept sufficiently in response to complex questions about it. Thus, it is likely inappropriate to simply adapt existing scales of religiousness to refer to spirituality in lieu of developing separate measures, despite the convenience of this tactic for researchers. Our findings that religion more than spirituality was associated with both personal belief sys- tems and community affiliation also have implications for working with older adults. Individuals may increase their participation in organizationally-based activities when in need of community support and affiliation. Additionally, being religious and a part of a religious community might help solidify personal belief systems. Affiliation with like-minded others, such as might be af- forded through contact with a religious community, likely offers numerous benefits—members can serve as sources of social support for one another and may facilitate better coping and problem-solving abilities (e.g., Seybold and Hill 2001). Additionally, the social support garnered from participation in religious organizations can provide older adults with mental and physical health benefits, including increased longevity (Krause 2006; Krause and Wulff 2005). Moreover, our finding that spirituality was not associated with affiliation suggests that religion and spirituality might have different implications for health and well-being. Those who merely identify as spiritual (but not religious) may miss the benefits of receiving greater, more easily accessible assistance (be it financial, instrumental, or emotional) in times of need. If older adults are not deriving feelings of community or affiliation from spirituality, additionally, it may be difficult to encourage their spiritual development. The possibility that, when unaccompanied by community affiliation, spiritual self-expansion might be negatively related to health and well- being is an important avenue for future research. In conclusion, our findings suggest that older adults largely view the concepts of religion and spirituality not as polarized, but rather as distinct concepts that nonetheless share considerable overlap. These findings should encourage further research pursuits. The findings that religion is seen as providing a guiding framework by which to live one’s life and a sense of community, while spirituality does not, have implications for work with, and measurement of, these con- structs. Additionally, the findings suggest that these two constructs may impact the well-being and possibly the daily lives and lived experiences of older adults very differently. Additional exploration of the different influence these concepts have in the lives of not only older adults, but of individuals of different religions and age groups, is an exciting avenue for future and focused research in religion and spirituality.


1. Although potentially of interest, we were unable to compare participants claiming different religious denominations due to small sample size.

2. This is not surprising because the Christian-based community requires residents to enter the community before the age of 75, whereas the nonaffiliated communities have no age entry limit or requirement.

3. In an attempt to test this notion, we divided participants based on a median split into groups of “high” or “low” spirituality, and tested the hypotheses separately within the two groups. The findings, in general, do not differ from those reported, with one exception: among those high in spirituality, Search for the Non-Sacred did not differ between religion (M = 0.80; SD = 0.85) and spirituality (M = 0.60; SD = 0.56), t (29) = 1.14, n.s. These findings should not be taken as a lack of support for our interpretation of the data, however, as most participants were highly spiritual to begin with. Rather, we speculate that there may not be enough variability in our sample to fully test these suggestions; this remains a topic for future research.


This research and preparation of this article was supported by a grant to Allen M. Omoto from the National Institutes of Mental Health and funding from the Fetzer Institute and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. We thank the



participants for their time and responses. Additionally, we thank Christina D. Aldrich, Anita L. Boling, Anna M. Malsch, Viviane Seyranian, and Tanya Valery for their assistance in conducting and transcribing the interviews.


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